New York City’s Fair Chance Law Could Help Ex-Offenders Nationwide

By Kenrya Rankin Oct 27, 2015

Today, New York City’s Fair Chance Law went into effect, ensuring that employers must evaluate job candidates based on their merits before they can ask about their criminal record. 

Called a “Ban the Box” initiative, the law was passed in June. It specifically impacts private companies who have four or more employers, and it bars them from asking about past convictions on applications and during interviews—effectively giving five million New Yorkers a better chance of being hired. It joins a previous law that did the same for city government hiring practices.

Starting today, employers in NYC will have to make a conditional job offer before they can run a background check or ask about an applicant’s criminal history. If a company then opts to rescind the offer, it must explain why (without violating the state law that prohibits discrimination based on a criminal record) and leave the job vacant for three days, during which the applicant can question inaccuracies in the background check and explain why the conviction has no bearing on the work. Those extra steps make the law an exceedingly strong one, says Nayantara Nehta, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project (NELP). And that is good news for the rest of the nation.

“It’s one of the strongest laws in the country and it represents what we want to see other cities and states passing,” Nehta says. “We are really excited about it because it’s going to affect both a large population and a lot of employers. There are a lot of national employers here, so it won’t be a burden for them to apply these rules elsewhere in the country.”

To date, 19 states and more than 100 cities have laws on the books that, at minimum, block some employers from including a checkbox on job applications that ask about conviction history. The laws in seven of those states, DC and 12 other cities impact private companies. Last month, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Fair Chance Act into Congress, which Nehta says is a good start, but it doesn’t stop companies from asking about criminal histories before making a job offer, and it lacks crucial guidance that will help companies fairly evaluate those histories.

“It is a basically taking the question off the application for federal agencies and federal contractors, but it doesn’t get into what we call the EEOC guidance, which is looking at how long ago was the incident, what was it and how related is it to the job. It’s more of a simple ban the box policy, which is of course important, but we want it to go further,” Nehta says. 

To that end, NELP, the PICO National Network and All of Us or None launched a federal fair-chance hiring initiative aimed at convincing President Barack Obama to issue an executive order that would fill in the gaps. There is also a petition with the same aim. “With all this focus on criminal justice reform, we’re hoping that there is a possibility of this moving through federal policy. Not only is the federal government a huge employer and this would affect millions of people, but it would send a really important message,” Nehta says.

Alyssa Aguilera, political director for Vocal-NY, an advocacy group that was instrumental in pushing the law, agrees. “If we’re having these conversations on the federal level about releasing people that have certain convictions and reducing sentences, that can’t happen without eliminating the associated consequences of a criminal record like employment discrimination,” Aguilera says. “When people are back in our communities, they need a chance to work. And if they don’t have that opportunity, then that’s only going to continue to perpetuate that recidivism and perpetuate poverty in communities of color. Everyone deserves a fair chance to work, and that’s what this law will provide.”